How Essendon will follow the Tiger template this year
By Jake Niall
If Essendon play deep into September this year, ending an embarrassing 15-year period in which the Dons have not won a final, one of the parties responsible will be the Richmond Football Club.
In 2019, Essendon will have a different game style to the one that saw them finish 11th last year, recovering from the dismal first eight rounds to finish with a flourish, creating great expectations that the club, no longer lumbered with the legacy of a drug scandal, could contend for the flag.
Touch of the Tigers: Essendon will look to improve their defence via the Richmond method in 2019.
Within Tullamarine, the view was that while they had performed far better from round nine, winning 10 of the last 14, the three teams that beat Essendon in the final 14 games were telling: Richmond (twice), Collingwood and Hawthorn.
Those teams, as the Bombers knew, shared one obvious trait: each of them had been well-drilled and rehearsed in a method for team defence, a system that covered for the deficiencies of individuals.
This year, the coach who held the team defence portfolio at Tigerland, Ben Rutten, has changed his stripe from yellow to red. Over summer, Rutten has been teaching and drilling the Essendon players - that’s all of them, not simply defenders - in a method that will borrow significantly from the successful Tiger template.
Essendon, despite the recovery from 2-6, did not defend terribly well in 2018. The Dons finished 11th on the points against ladder. Even though they improved after round eight (a period, coincidentally or not, that coincided with the ruthless removal of Mark Neeld from the coaching panel), they remained only average in team defence - the points against improved from 83.5 per game to 76 (ninth over the 14 rounds).
Those who have watched Essendon train over summer have noticed the sudden prevalence of Richmond-like defensive drills. No team defends better than the Tigers, who rely less on winning the ball at the source and are nonpareil at maintaining their "shape’’ defensively.
The best way to understand Richmond’s team defence - which drives their offence, too - is to think of it as an insurance policy: if they win the ball, they can take off, but they will have protective measures in place in the event of a turnover.
If they are beaten to the ball, the insurance policy is in place to win it back. This often means guarding space in the corridor - a drill that the Dons have been seen rehearsing, at Rutten’s direction.
The hallmarks of a Richmond defensive method are as follows: they play a zone, in which players guard both an opponent and space. They are versed in defending the kick down the line (which the Bombers also have been practising). And they use their speed and sheer intent to create turnovers in their forward half of the ground, where the buzzing likes of Jason Castagna and Dan Butler - neither destined for the Hall of Fame - have been valuable role players.
Essendon do not have the same personnel as the Tigers, so their game style will differ accordingly. Overall, both teams have speed - a key component to Richmond’s forward pressure - but the Tigers probably have a greater depth of endurance runners.
Hitherto, Essendon have kicked the ball often and spread the ball across the field - a method evident in the Dons’ high mark tallies. By spreading the field, however, they have left themselves open too often when the ball is turned over. The team that wins the ball back from Essendon does not find there is as much "density’’ - coach-speak for a crowd - as Richmond, Collingwood or Hawthorn would afford them.
The well-informed observers at club level expect this trait to change, and for the formerly ballistic Bombers to exercise greater caution with the ball, as they develop a Rutten-led insurance policy.
But the key to whether the Dons have successfully emulated Richmond won’t simply be Rutten’s teaching capacity. It will be the intent of the players. This means that if, say, Jake Stringer doesn’t chase and follow the system for closing down space, his position in the team must be in jeopardy.
John Worsfold has long been a coach who emphasises player management, relationships with players and staff and culture, rather than drilling the players in a particular method - the technical detail which, increasingly, is left in the hands of a club’s sharp assistant coaches, such as Rutten.
Damien Hardwick salvaged his career and won the feted, long-awaited flag by changing his method, delegating to new coaches in Justin Leppitsch and Blake Caracella (plus Rutten) and focusing on relationships. Collingwood’s Nathan Buckley, while falling a kick short of the grail, followed a remarkably similar script, learning to delegate and allowing his defensive coordinator, Justin Longmuir, to drive the game style change that held up in the face of injuries.
Lest we forget, too, that Hardwick, a nasty former Essendon back pocket, was giving the Tigers back some of the DNA that they donated to the Essendon Football Club in 1980, when another rugged back pocket called Kevin Sheedy walked in the door.
While Rutten doesn’t represent a Sheedy-like revolution at Essendon, once again, there will be a touch of yellow splashed in with the red and black this year.